Friday, June 15, 2018

Make 'Em Laugh!


From an item about a year ago from "The Mirror," a daily British tabloid.

Two women were kicked out of a cinema for laughing out loud.

The movie they were ejected from was Absolutely Fabulous, a 2016 comedy.

Some of the details are fuzzy -- reportedly, nobody in the seats complained until theater management approached the ladies in question. Apparently, the conversation that ensued is what other movie-watchers found objectionable.

But whatever the source -- tee-hees or talking -- the din was enough to given the pair the boot. They received a set of complimentary passes on their way out. I guess the idea was to have them return for a three-hankie weepy or a terrifying horror movie, where the respective risks would be crying or screaming too loudly.

I have never been asked to leave a theater for laughing too loud. I have, however, been chided by Kristin for my enthusiastic response to big-screen funny business.

"Geez, dad! All I could hear was you going ‘HO-HO-HO! HA-HA-HA!’ It was so embarrassing!!!"

I mean, who can help it? The Pink Panther and Back to the Future and Ghostbusters are funny and do warrant an audible, appreciable response. I remember screaming in the theaters over Airplane and the Naked Gun movies. And I wasn’t alone.

I have noticed, though, that modern-day movie audiences seem to be very reticent in the way they process a movie.

I remember seeing The Little Mermaid when it came to theaters in 1989. The energy and dazzle of "Under the Sea" was so impactful as a musical number that when the last chord of the song sounded, the audience erupted in applause!

It was a beautiful demonstration of a shared experience that a theater full of total strangers was compelled, in unison, to perform an act that made no sense at all. 

Think about it. Exactly who were we applauding? It certainly wasn't singers/dancers in a live show. It was, I guess, a set of animators, artists, musicians and singers who had done their work months prior.

But I got it. The sequence was so inherently theatrical that we responded theatrically. 

Honestly, it was a little thrilling. It was energizing. It was nostalgic. And it was wholly appropriate.

There's something about a large auditorium full of people exploding in laughter at the same moment. It happens at concert halls and comedy clubs and professional theaters all the time.

And it used to happen in the movies, too. But not so much anymore.

I was thinking maybe it had to do with theater size, that because they're no longer the cavernous spaces that fit hundreds of people, audiences have lost the anonymity that allowed them the freedom to burst out laughing and not be ridiculed for it.

Or maybe it's people becoming more aligned with watching movies on personal devices. I don't think anyone would sit on the subway watching a comedy on their iPad and physically laugh about some screen gag.

Claire and I were discussing this and she rolled her eyes: "This isn't yet one more thing you're going to blame on Millennials, is it?"

"No," I said defensively. ".... um... Not really."

She did, however, see my point. "I'll laugh at a comedian at a club, but not in a movie."

"Why?"

"I don't know... I don't want to disturb anyone else."

"Well what about crying?" I asked.

"Crying can be quiet," she said. "Nobody really needs to hear it."

Maybe it has something to do with movie comedies that frankly aren't that funny. I never really appreciated the male-centric slob comedies of the 1970s and 1980s (Animal House). So the 21st century counterpart, the female-centric slob comedy (Bridesmaids), doesn't have much appeal either.

All I know is this. Should you be seated near me during a revival showing of, say, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, don't expect me to hold it in.

I will laugh.

Out loud.

And hope I'm not ejected from the theater.



Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Thomas Wolfe Was Right

Nope: You can't go home again.

Not even virtually.

This is 4235 N. Marshall Street, Philadelphia, PA, via Google Streetview, dated July 2017.


This was the home of my paternal grandparents.

It was a place of parties and visits, of overnights, of Thanksgivings and Christmases.

Of springerle cookies, tall birthday cakes, personalized bags of Halloween candy and large Easter eggs with our names scripted on them in white icing.

It was where we reconnected with cousins, watched home movies from a whirring projector and sang while washing/drying dishes.

It's where Sunday dinners ended with the family gathering in front of the TV to watch Disney's The Wonderful World of Color, and where we as kids protested mightily if Dad suggested we leave before the show ended.

The concrete pad in the photo above used to be a small but lush patch of lawn that my Pop-Pop kept neat and tidy with the help of a rotary push-mower.

Those gates hide a porch that was once shaded by a set of green-striped awnings. Hanging those awnings every spring was a task that Dad was often asked to help with (apparently it was quite a struggle), but the comfort they offered from the setting summer sun made the task worthwhile.

There was also furniture on that porch, including a lounge chair that tipped upward, raising the occupant's feet for added comfort. I remember us as kids -- cousins, neighbor kids, brothers and me -- piling on that chair and screaming with laughter when it would unexpectedly tip.

I remember that house vividly.

When we would occasionally stay over and it was time to go to bed, we were told to to go "...up the wooden hill," which meant to climb the staircase to the second floor. We were also reminded to "scrub our teeth" rather than brush them.

I remember the upstairs bathroom had a skylight, which I thought was very cool.

And the basement had a separate toilet... not a full bath, but a commode that came in handy when traffic upstairs was heavy.

That basement also had a thousand treasures. Pop-pop would project home movies -- shots of people we didn't even know -- but he would hold our interest by running the films backward and cracking us up.

He also liked to use a screwdriver to short out the front doorbell. We would stifle giggles at the sound of Nana walking to the front door, only to find nobody there.

So many memories: Their silvery artificial Christmas tree. The scroll on the end of the bannister as it landed in the living room. The step-stool/seat in the kitchen. Their small garbage can on the back stoop. The fence in the backyard, with its iron humps. The twin beds that, when we kids stayed over, could be pushed together to make one large place for three brothers to sleep.

Those sleepovers often also involved a trip to the zoo, which Pop-pop loved. And a walk on Sunday morning to Mass at nearby St. Henry Parish.

My great-grandmother -- Pop-pop's mom who lived with them -- had "her" chair in the living room, from which she watched Lawrence Welk on television.

That home was the site of my first encounter with a color TV set.

And a window air conditioner. I remember escaping the summer swelter by just standing in front of its adjustable louvres.

I also remember that Dad and I would often travel there on Sundays after Mass for a visit. My brothers were other-occupied, and Mom was sleeping after a night-shift as a nurse. So Dad and I would drive in, bringing a box of donuts. We would gather at the kitchen table and just talk.

I don't recall the exact timeline of my grandparents departure from that house. I know Pop-pop died there in the early 1980s. Nana continued to live there alone, much to the concern of the rest of the family. I know she was there as late as the mid-1980s because when I studied abroad in London in Spring 1984, I sent her an Easter card that she saved. And the address is 4235 N. Marshall.

She saved that card. I have it now.

Nana understandably but regrettably sold the house at one point, driven out by a decreased ability to attend to the upkeep and an increased worry about her security.

She moved a few times after that, continuing to live on her own after her husband passed. As the years rolled on, she needed full-time nursing care and was put into a facility where her safety and health were assured. She passed away at 103.

The Marshall Street house remains. Not in its former glory, but it's still there. And I guess there's something to say for that.

And if ghosts do exist, whoever lives there, when things are quiet-quiet, may just hear singing from the kitchen.

As if someone washing and drying dishes is easing the task by humming a tune.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Mulch Ado about Nothing

This past weekend, I celebrated Mulch Day.

Mulch Day in our house is the one day a year when I roll up my sleeves and clean up the bed in front of our house.

And truth be told, as noted prior. I'm not a big fan of Mulch Day.

Maybe it's because the whole concept of mulch was foreign to me.

I came from a non-mulch home. Growing up, we never mulched anything. We mowed the lawn. We pulled crabgrass here and there. Maybe planted a bulb or two.

But nothing on the order of Mulch Day.

There really was no need. My childhood home had a similar bed out front, below the picture window that looked into the living room. But it had some kind of ground cover -- I want to say pachysandra, but I'm not sure -- that rendered mulch superfluous.

But our home now has no such eye candy. And Eileen comes from a family that was firmly devoted to mulch.

So each spring, I do a general cleanup of the bed and end it all with a coating of moist, black, shredded, smelly wood chips.

There's something from the Myth of Sissyphus about all this: I pull every weed. I spray those tiny ones that are emergent. I trim the bushes. And I lay the mulch.

And initially, it's all neat and tidy.

But generally, before July 4, the bed's a mess again. The weeds have shoved their way back into prominence; much of the mulch has disappeared (where does mulch go? Does it blow away? Is it removed by birds? Do squirrels eat it? I have 0 understanding of where $120 for 12 bags of mulch goes in a mere handful of weeks); and the bushes need a haircut once more.

It's a sweaty, muscle-aching, sunburny job.

I will say that it all looks so nice when I'm finished.

And I do enjoy that it seems to herald the firm arrival of spring.

But all things equal, if we're talking about "days" in May, this much is true:

I much prefer the leisure of Memorial Day to the work of Mulch Day.



Thursday, May 3, 2018

Leap of Faith, Three Letters... Answer? Pen

I've written here in the past about my love of Scrabble (actually, two posts, both almost verbatim... my blog-memory for topics isn't as sharp as it should be).

As noted (twice), I inherited my talent with tiles and two-letter words from my Mom.

From Dad, however, I inherited a different word skill: tackling each Sunday's big-sized New York Times crossword puzzle.

This arrangement is the exact opposite of the Scrabble tradition:

Whereas Scrabble was driven by Mom and shunned by Dad, the NYT puzzle was a Dad-favorite that Mom had little patience for.

Actually, she would attempt it. But she somehow couldn't wrap her head around the themes. And the wordplay -- rather than intriguing her -- seemed to annoy her.

She also had a nasty habit of working the puzzle in pen, which was against Dad's 11th Commandment:

Thou shalt never work the NYT crossword in pen!

Side note: I actually did this -- worked a puzzle in ink -- for the first time about three weeks ago. We were on a long flight, and I had packed the puzzle in my carry-on but neglected to pack a pencil. I borrowed a pen from Eileen (airports apparently don't sell pencils), held my breath and dug in.

Actually, things turned out pretty well.

The tips I've learned in tackling crosswords all came from Dad. He taught me, for example, that if a clue is plural, so is the answer. So, for example, a clue of "Alleyway Felines" would be CATS; whereas a clue reading "Alleyway Feline" would be CAT.

And that if the clue contains an abbreviation, so does the answer.

And that the overall theme of a puzzle is usually a play on words or a series of truly groan-worthy puns.

And that there is value in putting a puzzle down for a while and coming back later. Sometimes, he would say, a fresh perspective brings a couple more answers.

... and that's a truism that applies to life itself, as well as crossword puzzles.

Dad and I would work these puzzles together throughout the week. The folded paper would rest on the kitchen table or in the living room, and when one of us felt up to the task, we'd pick it up and pore over the open spaces.

When Dad would dig in for a while and then realize he had hit a series of dead ends, he would hand the page to me and always say the same thing:

"I finished all the hard ones; you can finish the easy ones."

Yeah, right.

Although I've done other crosswords -- those in our daily newspaper, for example, or the enterainment-oriented ones that used to show up in our published television listings -- the only one that I've stuck with is NYT. A lot of the others are stupidly easy, which erases all the fun. A puzzle that can be completed accurately in 20 minutes is a puzzle that's not worth doing.

My collaborations with Dad on the NYT crossword faded over time. When I moved out and got married, sharing the puzzle became too difficult to share. But we would often discuss our progress when talking on the phone.

His passing in 2006 put an end to our tag-team solving.

But I'm still at it.

And every now and then, when I get stumped, I imagine him looking over my shoulder and offering a hint or two.

Or suggesting a different read on a clue.

Or pointing out an error.

Which makes it a good thing that I work in pencil.




Monday, January 29, 2018

Eagles' Wings

When I was growing up, my mother abhorred the idea of a TV in the living room. So our television was in my parents’ bedroom.
My bedroom was next to theirs. On winter-fall Sunday afternoons, that meant I was within full earshot of mom and dad’s viewing of the ups – and many downs – of the Philadelphia Eagles.
I remember clearly sitting at my desk and hearing not only the audio of the broadcast (Tom Brookshire) but also the encouraging comments of my parents, both mega-Eagles fans”
“…go, go GO! GOOO!”
“Get ‘im… get ‘im… GET ‘IM!”
“NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NOOOOOO!”
Through this din I would shoulder on, trying to study World War II, the tragedies of William Shakespeare and the Periodic Table of the Elements.
I’m not sure where my dad got to be so attached to the Philadelphia Eagles, but he was devout. And my mom was right there beside him. When it came to the Eagles, they were a match made in heaven.
What pains me at this stage in my life is the level of distain I had for it all back then.
I’m not even sure why.
Maybe it was the struggle of trying to study with all that cheering  (or, more accurately, groaning) going on.
Maybe it was growing up with two brothers who played football and being dragged to games I didn’t understand and wasn’t interested in.
Maybe it was how all-encompassing it was: If we went to a party or a dinner where a game was on, every other kind of interaction ceased. Further, even courteous conversation was shushed, with all eyes glued to the screen.
Maybe it was the general sense of asserting my independence. If my parents liked it, I must immediately dislike it.
I don’t know. But for years, I hated the Eagles and had no interest.
Until…
When our kids were little, I started gravitating toward the game.
Something about it caught my attention. It wasn’t like other sports on TV: Baseball was a snoozefest, full of long stretches where seemingly nothing was happening. Basketball and hockey had the opposite drawback: too frantic.
Football, however, was accessible. I "got" it.
It was like watching an hour-long war. Turf gained. Turf lost. Field soldiers each doing his job. Coaches overseeing the big picture. Plenty of plotting and planning, with enough wiggle room for Lady Luck to sweep in and take a hand.
I learned to love it.
And fortunately, I came to appreciate the game while my parents were still alive.
So I now have the fond memories of enjoying televised games with Mom & Dad. As do our girls, who remember nestling in and cheering the Eagles.
Which makes this year all the more poignant.
I know my parents have their eyes set on Minneapolis from up above. They have dyed their white wings to a slick Midnight Green. I also know my sister-in-law Kathy is right there with them, a green Eagles hat stretched over her halo.
I’ve heard of fans who wept at last week’s win.
I screamed my voice raw over the game. But when the final gun sounded and we emerged on top – underdogs all the way – I did not cry.
This week, however, knowing what I know, living what I’ve lived, growing up in the house I grew up in, having the Eagles-fan parents I had…
Should the stars align and we come out on top.
Well I my joy may just overflow onto my cheeks.

GO EAGLES!


Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Tuning Up

Growing up, music was a big deal in our house.
Our living room, for example, was dominated by a console stereo system that provided AM/FM tuning, a turntable and a storage slot for 33 1/3 rpm records. All this high-fi technology was encased in a cabinet that, as a child, appeared to me to be the size of a shipping crate.
And as I recall, that stereo was prioritized as a family purchase before funds were allotted in the family budget for a color television set.
So clearly, my parents valued music in the home above the ability to watch The Wonderful World of Color in color.
At Christmastime, there were two milestones in the sounds that issued forth from its fabric-covered speakers.
The first came early December, when my parents authorized the playing of our family’s collection of Christmas albums.
Given the vast array of Christmas recordings and our parents’ appreciation of music, you would think we would be chock-full of Christmas-on-vinyl delights. But unless my memory fails, there were really only a handful:
We had the Harry Simeone Chorale Little Drummer Boy album; two recordings of Christmas classics played on organ (one was a mighty pipe organ, the other was a warbling Hammond – definitely higher on the cheese factor); and a collection album from WT Grant, which provided a sampling of songs from vocal stars of the 1960s, such as Robert Goulet, Mahalia Jackson, Steve Lawrence and Anita Bryant.
The Simeone recording had the title track that everyone knows, but beyond that, there were real gems here.
One of the cuts was a quick-tempo, rhythmic riff on the “Hallelujah Chorus,” sung entirely by the men’s half of the chorus and accompanied by blaring brass. I also loved the arrangement of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” whose intro was a whistled solo above lush strings. And one of the songs, “Every Christmas Is a Birthday,” had special meaning to me because of the December 27 date of my own entry into the world.
The Grant album was another winner. How I loved Johnny Mathis’ “Silver Bells,” with its gentle “Silent Night” countermelody woven in. And for some reason, the rendition of “Jingle Bells,” sung by Jim Nabors, always made me smile, if for no other reason than the inclusion of a little-known, seldom-recorded verse.
The organ albums were a mixed bag, but a highlight for me was a song called “The March of the Three Kings.”
By Christmas Eve, our affection for these albums began to wane from being overplayed. So late that afternoon, when the local easy-listening station flipped the switch to an all-Christmas format, we welcomed the variety.
Many of my memories of that marathon of merry music are of their accompaniment to the last of our last Christmas preparations before the big day. When Santa still came to the house, that meant it was the soundtrack to our hanging of the stockings before retiring to bed. When I was older, it meant something to hum or sing to while putting the final touches on our tree and the vintage trains – and tiny village – that surrounded it.
And more often than not, Mom was pulling the last of the Christmas cookie batches out of the oven.
Thanks to the digital age, I’ve now got nearly 500 Christmas songs on a mega-playlist on my iPod.
And fortunately, they include many of those cherished tracks from the days when the sounds of Christmas included the hiss of a needle finding a groove on a record album, filling a home with glory and glee.


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Scent-sing My Father

They say -- and I believe it -- that the sense of smell is the biggest trigger for memory.

When I think of my kids when they were little, they were perfumed with baby power and mild shampoo, and a whiff now will bring me back to those early days of parenthood.

Mom? She seemed to whirl in an atmosphere of Jean Nate and vanilla extract, the latter which came into play when she was cooking homemade tapioca, a treat I would now pay a king's ransom for. Nobody made tapioca like her.

My father, however, was Old Spice. And Kiwi shoe polish.

For a while, he was also pipe tobacco, as he took up a pipe to, I suppose, move away from his cigarette consumption at least in theory.

But the shoe polish was a Saturday night ritual for him.

And us.

As Saturday evenings would unfold, he'd grab the shoeshine kit from the back of his closet and take out his Sunday-wear shoes.

With a rag on his finger, he would smear black polish on each one, rubbing the oily paste into the pores of the leather.

And then... Skfff - Skfff - Skfff - Skfff. The brush would do its magical work, making the shoes gleam. He was precise, effective and efficient, as his engineering background led him to be in just about everything he did. I'm sure the training in the Navy didn't hurt, either.

I remember doing it as well. As did my brothers, I suppose. It was as much a Saturday night habit as taking a bath and watching reruns of Sea Hunt and The Honeymooners.

When he passed away in 2006 (has it really been ten years?!?!) and we were removing his belongings (preparations for moving my mother), I came across the shoeshine kit.

And although my care for my shoes had evolved to sloppy polishes with foam applicators and then on to a careless swipe with a paper towel, I decided to keep the kit.

It now resides in the garage, high on a shelf.

But should I have a desire to revisit him in a physical, sensory way... I take it down, like I did tonight to photograph it.

And open that small tin.

And breathe him in through my nostrils.

I love you, Dad. I miss you. And I think of you often.